Guided Tour Season 2

This Is Your Brain: The Guided Tour – Stendhal Syndrome

Have you ever felt loony in the Louvre? Manic in the Met? Freaked out at the Frick? That’s not a heart attack you’re having — it’s an art attack!

This week on “This Is Your Brain – The Guided Tour”, we examine the rare and curious phenomena of … the “Stendhal Syndrome.”  The term “Stendhal Syndrome” refers to some individuals’ psychosomatic responses when they gaze upon great works of art. Symptoms include altered perceptions of sounds and colors, panic attacks, chest pains, a sense of inadequacy or, alternatively, a sense of euphoria.

An Italian psychiatrist, Dr. Graziella Magherini, identified the unique phenomenon when she realized a surprisingly high number of foreign tourists were being hospitalized after experiencing unease while touring monuments, museums and art galleries in Florence, Italy.  She named the condition after the French writer known as Stendhal, who in 1817 described visiting a Florence cathedral and seeing the artist Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes:

I was in a sort of ecstasy… Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul… I had palpitations of the heart….”

And that was before he saw the bill for his hotel room!

Recent incidents attributed to the Stendhal Syndrome include that of a 32-year-old woman moved to kiss and leave a lipstick smudge on a painting by the American artist Cy Twombly on display in Avignon, France; a man ripping a hole in a Monet painting at Paris’s Orsay Museum; and a 1998 attack in the Louvre in which a visiting math professor lobbed a hammer into a statue of Roman philosopher Seneca. Other studies have suggested that such reactions are related to underlying psychiatric conditions. Or, to what Freud called “the uncanny” – the disturbance in the brain when confronted with something that is simultaneously familiar and strange. Experiencing in person a work of great art that you’ve previously seen only in pictures could bring on that kind of mental dissonance, and – on rare occasions – a literal “art attack”. Violence in the museum – another strange and fascinating exhibit in “This Is Your Brain, The Guided Tour.”

Phil Stieg: We return now to our discussion with Daphna Shohamy.  She used her study on how our brains respond to art to explore larger issues of how people make decisions and set priorities – based on a model called Construal Level Theory, or C.L.T.

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